I don’t listen to country music so forgive my inability to properly reference this song; a song I abhor. I have seen the music video though. The guitar-slinging singer hops out of his Chevy pickup wearing a baseball cap and mechanics shirt singing about all the characteristics of a “real” American. As I watched this video, as a man whose head remains too large for donning baseball caps and drives a small sedan, I felt entirely un-American. And enraged. His depiction undoubtedly represents some Americans but not nearly all of them. His arrogance infuriated me. Yet there he sang, describing an easy-to-swallow, why-would-you-want-to-be-anything-different, if-you’re-not-like-me-than-leave but grotesquely inaccurate American identity – “a gaudy illusion”.
As Ralph Ellison, again, blew my mind I embraced what I read as his master theme. He chose a passage from T.S. Eliot as his epigraph which dictates a theoretical function of memory; how it weaves itself into the construction of identity. As opposed to American Values and American Aspirations, the American Identity does not comfortably snuggle into one mold.
At times stylistically reminiscent of Hemingway, but with an expanded vocabulary, and Joyce, but with effective rule-breaking, Ellison constructed a text, though partial, resounding with a grandeur equal to the message he conveys. While reading I felt a sense of nostalgia even though no event or semantic frequency made direct reference to any personal experience of mine. The text itself seemed to touch something universally interlaced through the human psyche; a buried consciousness and Ellison alone knew the language. By telling the story through jazz, sermons, revivals, conversations, speeches, and films, Ellison maps a plot of the mind; each event a memory layered by perspectives from both Hickman and Bliss.
As opposed to Bliss, Hickman embraces his past. He wrestles with it, of course, continuously questioning how it could have led to the realization of a good man. But Bliss ignores his on the grounds of his unknown origin. He experiences a moment which annihilates his innocence but instead of embracing the event as a catalyst for his growth and betterment, he runs away to make himself the way he envisions rather than evolving with the circumstances of his history under grace and integrity. Hickman needed humbling, yet he allowed it because of his decency. Bliss seems to erase his character in order to make space for a new one. I don’t blame Bliss. Perhaps living a life ignorant of one’s origins excuses such desperate groping for identity. However, regardless of blame, consequences persist. Perhaps Bliss ought to have embraced his upbringing and allowed his character to process that past appropriately. Yet the question still remains: without a history, what kind of confidence can one have in their character? Is it truly their character? As America chooses to selectively remember its history – looking forward to the identity it can create autonomous of history – how can we be sure of who we are?
Some might commend our ability to reinvent ourselves, to look forward to shaping our national identity. But if we always look forward, are we ever doing it? If we don’t remember what shaped us, will we ever be there? And if we do not shape or remember shaping our identity, will we ever have character?
Ellison called Emancipation a gaudy illusion. Of course, it legally abolished slavery but as a nation we still haven’t tasted true liberty. Our petty differences, our defiance against our actual character, leave us clinging to the gates of our cells. If we don’t allow the successes and mistakes of our past to shape us, we will always run from them. They will always control and dictate our running like a treadmill in a jail cell. Our choices will never originate with liberty and one unified ambition but with a dictatorial order from our fear and hatred.
Abolish “the gaudy illusion” and allow our memories to shape our national identity; allow our character to venture through the purifying fires of history and grow stronger together. Look ahead from atop building blocks of the past, not from the survey lines on the ground. Embrace liberty by uniting and moving toward a future for our country rather than for a country-song idea void of any reality. Without blame, no fingers stabbing through the air, but with reason and insight into the heart of the void experienced by all Americans, Ellison compels us to forge ahead together with a shared American identity, to envision that better future for who we are rather than who our prejudices and fears dictate us to be. With Juneteenth came the freedom to pursue freedom.